By ROD McGUIRK
CANBERRA, Australia - Australia will remove all gender barriers in its military over the next five years, opening up positions that had previously been considered too dangerous for women, including front-line combat roles, a minister said on Tuesday.
Australia will follow Canada and New Zealand in allowing women who meet physical and psychological criteria to perform any role they choose, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said.
"This is a significant and major cultural change," he told reporters.
"That is why we'd rather err on the side of caution in expressing a five-year period" to implement the change.
Women can currently serve in 93 percent of employment categories in the Australian Defense Force, which includes the army, navy and air force. But some roles have been reserved for men, including infantry, artillery and naval clearance diving.
The Cabinet agreed to the change Monday with the support of defense chiefs, Smith said.
The Australian Defense Association, an influential security think-tank, previously warned that it could inflict heavy casualties on Australia's women warriors.
The association argues that there are biomechanical differences between the sexes - differences in muscle distribution, centers of gravity and rate of recovery from physical exertion - that make even physically strong women more vulnerable in combat.
Smith said the change would not affect the Australian military's interoperability and personnel exchanges with its major security partner, the United States.
"We will present our soldiers as potential embeds or potential third-party or third-country deployees on the basis of their capacity and their ability, not on the basis of their sex," he said.